More than a century ago, gold miners brought their nuggets to the assay office in Tracy’s Building located on the dusty Main Street of Old Hangtown, trading their pokes for coins they could use to shop in the booming Gold Rush town that would become Placerville.
Today, in that same building, people bring their money to trade for gold, in the form of golden brown pizzas and paninis and sparkling golden glasses of fine wine.
The Heyday Café, at 325 Main St., is a must-stop for the savvy tourist looking for a special treat to highlight a vacation, or for the discerning local connoisseur who has made the restaurant a habit since the popular eatery’s opening six years ago.
Step under the soft-red awning just down the street from the hanging dummy that guards the site of the old Hangman’s Tree and you’ll find yourself walking onto a gracefully aged hardwood floor that is hugged by ancient brick walls under an open-beam ceiling. If only the walls could talk … but no problem … the staff can tell customers about the history that seeps enticingly through the small, cozy restaurant’s atmosphere.
“I think people notice the warmth of the place as soon as they come in,” said owner Jeff Thoma, 42. “The building is 161 years old and once served the town as the assay office where miners would exchange gold for cash. It burned down in 1856 and was rebuilt in 1857 — those are the original bricks you’re looking at,” he added, pointing to the restaurant’s east wall.
“If you look closely at the plaster, you can see traces of real horsehair, which is what they put in the plaster back in those days,” Thoma said.
While Thoma loves to talk about the area’s fascinating history, just ask him what’s good on Heyday’s menu and get ready to be impressed anew.
“We are known for our thin-crust pizzas, for our artisanal salads and our entrées, which probably could be best described as California cuisine with French and Italian influences,” said Thoma, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Judy, 58.
“For example, one of our more popular salads is the ahi tuna, which features candied pecans, fresh greens, apple slices and crumbled bleu cheese,” he began. “Our entrées are eclectic and our wine selection is second to none locally. We sell 40 wines by the glass, with a good selection of local and Old World wines. We even have a merlot from Israel and a pinotage from South Africa.”
Golden beer also is on tap.
As a waiter walked by with a small pizza fresh from the oven, it was noted that the dish looked more like a work of art, something it would be a shame to destroy by eating it — until you get a whiff of the warm cheese melding with the bacon and artichoke lying atop the golden-brown crust.
Pass the pizza!
Thoma said the Heyday Café enjoys a thriving customer base, including loyal locals and “lots of weekend tourists.”
“People come up from El Dorado Hills and the Bay Area, visiting the area and maybe going to Tahoe, and they tend to make the Heyday a stop on their way up and on their way back,” Thoma said. He added that the restaurant can seat about 40 and often plays host to groups.
One such group, about a dozen nurses from Marshall Hospital in Placerville, recently celebrated a 50th birthday for one of its members, with the birthday gal being the one who chose the restaurant for the special occasion.
“It’s my favorite restaurant,” said Suzi Malm of Rescue. “They have great food that’s also very healthy, and being nurses, we’re all pretty healthy,” she said, laughing. Her companions nodded their agreement while gathering purses and sweaters following their successful party.
One of them, Christy Poganski, 32, summed it up: “Heyday is the best place to eat in Placerville, period,” she said. “It has the best menu, the best wines, the best ambiance.”
If you’re wondering how the restaurant got its name, Thoma is happy to explain.
“We originally planned it as a theme restaurant, featuring people in history, such as Babe Ruth, when they were in their heyday,” he said. That plan never really came to fruition, but Thoma said he and his wife liked the concept anyway, and the cafe’s logo incorporates a peak element meant to represent “heyday.”
Judging by the bustling atmosphere and happy, chatting customers on any given day, the restaurant indeed appears to be enjoying its heyday.
The reason for six years of success in a less-than-stellar economy is simple, according to Thoma.
“It’s a combination,” he said. “The quality of food, the environment and the service staff. That’s it — there’s no mystery.”
The Heyday Cafe has some 20 employees on its payroll.
The sumptuous fare that has hooked tourists and locals alike for half-a-dozen years can be checked out online where Heyday menus are posted at heydaycafe.com. Or do yourself a favor and take a walk down Placerville’s historical Main Street and stop in to savor tales of the past along with tasty treats of today.
The Heyday Cafe is open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed Monday. Call 530-626-9700 for more information.